HOW I MET JANUSZ KORCZAK
An excerpt from her book,” Janusz Korczak: Sculptor of Children’s Souls” published in 2015 .
He was a brilliant pedagogue, a magician molding young souls. He understood the true spirit of the child.
This was one of the outstanding attributes which spoke to me, especially as I had my own successful teaching career of 40 years. It was Korczak’s powerful love for children that has especially spoken to me. I admit I love to see the spark of happiness in children’s eyes after my interaction with them, whether on buses or subways or in the streets of New York City and other places I have visited around the world. You must know that smiles and giggles and sparkling eyes are quite international.
I also dole out stickers to children who attend Sabbath services (like the ‘candy’ man or woman who did so before it became no longer politically correct to hand out sugar treats). Is this not similar to Korczak’s postcards or candy for winning a bet?
For many years I have worked in New York City public schools and private Jewish schools. I admire Korczak’s ability to interact, to motivate, to learn and act morally; to love children and be loved back by them as well. He was so far ahead of his time in knowing the true deep ‘spirit’ of the child.
In 1972, I first discovered Janusz Korczak’s compelling, tragic, as well as heroic legend (life). It was during a program to commemorate Yom HaShoah V’Hagevura (Day for Holocaust and Heroism) held in the Beit Shraga Jewish Day School in Albany, New York. Each year thereafter, recalling his memory and his children, together with others whose lives were cut off, I emphasized Korczak’s heroism. Also utilizing the sole book for children at that time, The Holocaust: A History of Courage and Resistance by Bea Stadler. I emphasized Korczak’s heroism. I taught about and created a curriculum for the Holocaust for sixth and seventh graders.
In the summer of 1981, while attending a three week seminar in Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, I ‘revisited’ Korczak while viewing his larger-than-life sculpture where he huddles over some of his children, his enlarged hands clutching them lovingly close to his bosom. A visit (in the northern part of Israel) to the Museum of the Ghetto Fighters at Kibbutz Lochamei Haghetaot further brought him to life. At the time, I bought five hard-bound volumes written by and about him. In those years my Hebrew language skills were not as proficient as they are today, so it was difficult for me to plow through them. A few years later, I also read King Matt I. I was metaphorically taken to the imaginary child utopia run by the boy ruler.
In 1997 – 1988, Betty Jean Lifton’s seminal volume, The King of the Children, was published in English. This brought Korczak to me on a deeper level. A few years prior 1978 to that same time, the English translation of his Ghetto Diary was published as well. Korczak had begun writing it in January of 1940, but only completed it a few days prior to his death in 1942. I also heard a lecture by Edward Kulawiec in New Haven, Connecticut. As a result of my immersion in this Korczak’s work and ideas, I fell in love with this educator of children’s souls.
In 1998, I visited 92 Krochmalna Street, the orphanage building in Warsaw, Poland. I imagined the walls of the large dining hall resounding with children’s voices and the hubbub of activities. I envisioned Korczak walking up the staircase to the attic room (his humble quarters) or checking on the sleeping children in the dormitory rooms. I noted the banister that he, himself, slid down-causing him to receive a punishment from the Children’s Court of Justice. It tickled my mind and my heart.
A few days later, I visited Treblinka death camp. There were stark uniform stones, one after the other, each denoting the names of Jewish communities in Poland that flourished prior to the Holocaust. One stone, however, was set apart from the rest. On it was starkly written, “Janusz Korczak and HIS children.” I was struck by several memorial candles in front of that memorial stone. An attached note was touchingly written by Shira, a teenage girl who I known from Albany, New York where my love and respect for Korczak was kindled.
Tears poured down my cheeks…
I knew then that I had to do more to kindle others’ interest in Korczak and his magic.
What was it like to actually live in his orphanage? What was it like to be under the influence of this incredible man? How did those years living with Korczak either as a child or a peer counselor influence their lives?
In 2002, while spending six months in Israel, I was granted access to the ‘treasures’ of the Korczak archives in the Ghetto Fighters’ Kibbutz (Lochamei HaGeta’ot). Unable to read Polish, however, I was still able to read quantitative amounts written in Hebrew. I was also given a list of names, addresses and phone numbers of people living in Israel, alove due because of their immigration to Palestine in the 1930s. A few more spent time scattered throughout the world before arriving as well.
I set out to visit them in their home in Israel to tape record their fascinating stories of living with the legendary Korczak. Most were in the autumn of their lives, but their memories were still fresh. After visiting these interesting people and taping them, I transcribed what I had heard, then translated it into English. It was truly amazing to learn how vivid a picture was still engraved in their memories.
After a hiatus of almost ten years, I have now completed this book. It was a promise I made to the memory of Korczak to do so…..’to love a child.’ It is through the eyes, hearts, and souls of those persons I have interviewed that I wish to convey the essence of Janusz Korczak, for he left such a rich heritage for others to know him and appreciate his philosophies and pedagogies..
As Korczak wrote in ‘How To Love and Respect a Child’:
…..hoping to build a better future…..For humans to learn about taking responsibility for their own actions, to become tolerant of others, to have compassion and not be idle bystanders, and most importantly, to get them to act on behalf of moral and ethical issues-like the pursuit of justice and truth-to build a better world.
Marcia can be reached via email – firstname.lastname@example.org.